Legislature wraps up business amid COVID-19 fears

Mar 19, 2020
Written by Mark Johnson, Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs

Amid growing fears with the spread of COVID-19, the 2020 Washington State Legislature adjourned and headed home in haste.

The short, supplemental 60-day session was originally billed by the majority party as a minor adjustment to policy decisions from 2019 and if needed, slight tweaks to the 2019 Biennial Operating Budget. It ended up being far from that. In the first two weeks hundreds of new bills were introduced in addition to the thousands of bills retained from last session that didn’t make it. Hearings and executive action started almost immediately and didn’t let up until the end.

Probably most disappointingly, the majority party took the opportunity of correcting a severely flawed Business and Occupation Tax increase bill from last session to expand its scope and increase taxes an additional $200 million. WR opposed the original bill in 2019 and the unwarranted expansion in 2020. What is most disturbing is that our state had been awash in unanticipated revenue collections. The last revenue forecast put us ahead by hundreds of millions of dollars.

That’s enough to fund the Governor’s entire supplemental budget, put millions away in our rainy-day fund and give taxpayers some relief with property taxes. This wasn’t the case. Sadly, the budget passed the final days of session on a largely party-line vote. The one unanticipated appropriation that hit at the end was the COVID-19 response, which started at $100 million and soon ballooned to $200 million and speculation is that it won’t be enough.

Putting aside the taxes and budget, there were several major policy proposals debated. The one bill that got the most attention and was the most contentious was the Washington Data Privacy Act. WR was an early supporter of the bill as it was introduced and passed the Senate 46-1. Unfortunately, the House amended the bill into a very unfavorable condition, and we ended up opposing the final version. I expect this issue will be back next session or possibly in the form of an initiative.

Other major proposals included:

  • Adopting a statewide mandated employee scheduling requirement. Thankfully, this measure failed, but proponents are not done, and it will likely be back or like data privacy, could be an initiative authored by organized labor.
  • A King County employee head tax that failed. This would have punished businesses that offered high wage jobs. Understandably, the measure was introduced to head off the Seattle City Council from adopting an even worse and more punitive proposal.
  • A statewide ban on plastic shopping bags that the Legislature approved.
  • A bill that would have made it a crime to intentionally conceal goods in a store with the intent of stealing them. WR drafted the bill and strongly supported it.

Our state is an outlier in this area. A thief must leave the store before they can be tried and convicted of theft. This has become more and more dangerous for customers, employees and the thieves themselves. Unfortunately, there were concerns the bill would be used to racially profile shoppers, which isn’t the case, but that was enough of a perception that the bill did not come up for a vote.

In summary, WR would like to thank all its members for engaging in the legislative process. We would also like to thank the legislators who supported our agenda and fought to protect our industry. The 2021 Legislative Session begins next January.